In February 2013, Juliet left her village in Edo State Nigeria to Europe.

Through the help of her uncle who is also a people smuggler, she could make the perilous journey through the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.

Today, she is securely resident in Italy, living the Italian Dream and doing remarkable things back home.

In 2016, Juliet completed a magnificent four-flat bungalow where her people smuggler uncle now lives.

We had driven about 25 kilometres from Benin city through a dirt road to Juliet’s village where she built the house.

Bounce News’ quest to have a firsthand account of young Nigerians risking everything in the Sahara to enjoy the currency difference between the naira and euro drew us to the underworld.

Juliet’s house stood out in the neighborhood, a magnificent structure with its lush interior.

We could hear some construction noise not too far off. When we asked what it was an old lady responded – “It’s our new house, our Juliet is building another one for us so we can rent out this one, dem don almost finish sef”.

When we walked in, we saw him – he could pass for anyone aged between 45 and 65. His hoarse voice showed he was in absolute control of the estate. His dark eyes kept darting over our shoulders – like he was expecting someone or something to follow us in.

“Juliet is just 27 years old.” Her uncle told us. “How many bankers in Nigeria can do this within such a brief period?” he added for emphasis.

His welcome was brief. We could sense the urgency in his body language. He told us no one can stop people from making the trip – if that is what we intend to achieve with our report.

“How many of her age mates can afford a 3-square meal today in Nigeria let alone owning an apartment?” he asked.

Suddenly, he developed cold feet. He turned down the request to have a full interview on camera.

*Juliet's houses are along this street

He said he could not take any chances. His life depended on it.

It was risky to continue to speak to us – the business was far too lucrative to risk speaking to the media.

He got up and looked us eye to eye – NO! He thanked us for coming and requested we leave immediately.

But luck was on our side. As our lead had made a separate arrangement with another ‘people smuggler’,

Pa Benson, as he is fondly called, who had been in the same business since 1997.

“It is my business and I am not afraid to talk,” he began.

“I am a desert warrior,” he boasted.

Apparently in his mid-50s, Pa Benson told us he had understudied the route 20 years ago and has smuggled about 105 people to Libya and Europe.

He said he is preparing for his last trip this September, as it is time to pass on the baton.

Nigeria to Libya to Italy

The price is fixed. It’s a non-negotiable fee of 200,000 naira per person from Benin To Tripoli. If you wish to head to Italy from Libya, an additional $1,200 is required.

These sums are non-refundable.

The journey is not made by the fearful or tender-hearted. Anything can happen at any time – in fact it is “50-50” as they refer to the risk in the smuggling circle.

He says he has been lucky. Throughout his 20-year career, he has never lost a passenger.

“But there was one occasion I met a trip that their truck broke down in the Sahara Desert and all of them perished,” he recalls.

The dangerous trip to Europe will never end, according to Pa Benson.

“It cannot stop. No government on earth can stop it,” he said in his gruffly voice.

*Pa Benson has been smuggling people to Europe since 1997

Meanwhile, like many smugglers in the town, Pa Benson has a humanitarian reason for what he is doing. He believes that with the rampaging poverty in Nigeria, he has only helped to reduce poverty and crime by smuggling people to Europe.

“My brother, if you see the suffering in this Nigeria and the crime that used to happen here especially in this Benin, if not because of this travel by road of a thing, everybody would have been living in the bush.

“To a point, people will just hate themselves so much that they will jump into the river and die because of crime,” he started.

“But when people started using legs to enter Europe, ‘everything come cool’, 'we come de sleep fine for night.

“Right now, there is no more gunshots, no more house burning, armed robbery, and no more fighting. More than 75% of criminals in Benin have moved away.

“All of them are in Europe but they cannot try that nonsense there,” he said.

“More so, where is the job here in Benin or in this Nigeria? Or is it because you have opportunity to get this little job (referring to the reporter),” he added, almost losing his cool at my relentless questions on why he is smuggling people into Europe.

One of the young men, already booked by Benson for his final trip is Ose. He is only 23 years old.

He told me his final destination is Germany and he cannot be persuaded to change his mind.

“I know that when I get there, I will have a good life. I believe that when I am there, success is sure,” he said.

He lost his father when he was barely 5 years old and life with his widowed mother has been a struggle.

Europe, he believes, is his last hope of redeeming himself and his mother from the clutches of poverty.

*Ose has eyes set on Germany 

“They say it is risky but I have that belief that with God all things are possible. I want to do it for the sake of me and my family so that we can have a good life,” he said.

When asked if he would reconsider making the trip if offered one million naira to start a business.

“I will take the money but I will use it to make the trip,” he said.

Like Ose, James’ mind is also made up.

His own destination is Italy.

He has tried his luck here at professional football but he has not succeeded.

He believes Europe will give him the break.

When I reminded him of the risks associated with his mode of travel to Europe, he retorted:

“Let me tell you something. In this life, good or bad, it is 50/50. Two things are involved, life or death, success or failure. Despite the risk, I still prefer living outside the country than Nigeria.

“In this country, nobody cares, no one cares whether you live or die. Here, I am struggling with my mother so, despite the risk, I still prefer to go.”

*James hopes for a big break in Italy as a footballer

But not everyone believes seeking a better life in Europe should be a matter of life and death.

On the street of the ancient city, we met a taxi Driver, David Ezebvokhun.

He said many people have thrown away their lives in the Sahara Desert looking for better life in Europe. He recalled that he would have been a victim in early 90s but he hid his relative’s advice and stayed back in Nigeria.

 “Traveling through land is 50/50. It is either you lose your life or live. But it is not good for someone to gamble with his life.

“This travelling from Edo state to Italy is because of mindset. People that are doing it only consider what they will gain from making the journey without considering the deadly side of it,” he started.

*David believes traveling to Europe should not be a do-or-die affair

“No matter what you tell people today, they will not listen. The only thing I would say now is, if Nigeria has failed them; if the leadership of this country has failed them; if the government of today has failed them, one can start a business. We all should also seek the face of God. We should put our trust in God and pray,” he added.

Every year, thousands of Africans attempt to cross illegally into Europe with hope of getting a better life.

According to the International Organization for Migration, a total of 153,842 people arrived by sea to Italy in 2015.

Of that sum 96,525 Africans from Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, the Gambia, Mali and Nigeria arrived alive.

Nigeria alone accounted for 22,237 of the survivors.

Nigeria is an oil-rich nation with a growing population of about 186 million people.

Of that number, more than half of the people are under age 30.

But the country is plagued by widespread poverty with no fewer than 112 million Nigerians living below one dollar a day, according to Nigeria's National Bureau of Statistics’ (NBS) 2016 estimates.

This represents about 67.1% of the country’s population.

Pervasive government corruption has not helped matters, leaving the economy badly beaten and millions of young people with limited opportunities.

The country has no social welfare system, a recent attempt failed woefully due to lack of data and resources.

While some walk out through the front door on airways to Europe and America; there are thousands who have embarked on the dare devil journey by land and water.

*They eventually end in the Meditarranean Sea to Europe

As you read this, a bus filled with Nigerians heading to Europe is leaving Kano city to Agadez in Niger Republic.

At the same time, many more are attempting to cross the Sahara Desert or the Mediterranean Sea. Either of the two places may become their final resting place.

There may be no end in sight to this cycle until the Nigerian government at least begins to take a proactive and pragmatic approach to crush poverty.

Note: The names of people featured in this story have been changed to protect their identities

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